By Mike McGrath  

* * * * * * * *

It is said that squirrels make good pets; that if you can pull a kit out of its litter before it goes feral, and that if you nurse it yourself using an eyedropper and a rich milk formula you can get from your local veterinarian or zookeeper, you will have a bright and attentive companion for the seven to ten years that it takes them to finally burn out. I have always felt that, for me, such an animal would be far too frenetic. Better a sloth or tortoise, or some festooned fish in a neat little square aquarium for me.

Tingk, tingka, tingk.

A few miles away from my location, one of the skittering little balls of gray fur was huddling in the bowels of a power sub-station as the first few bloated drops of rain pocked at the ground outside. The animal started at every stray sound there, in the dark and outside through the crack in the wall it had found.

* * * * * * * *

Thunder sounded again, closer to me. I saw no lightning, but the first wafts of ozone liberated by its flash drifted to me on a new, soft, hot breeze. My ID badge clacked faintly against the windshield. The leaves in the grove of ash and maple and oak over on the edge of the wood I faced turned up their undersides like a sign corps at a stadium show. The strands of hair on my head that were not matted down in gore rose up with the leaves, badly hurting the skin of my scalp.

* * * * * * * *

Arthur Bremer, standing invisible among the well-wishers and campaign workers, was clapping and cheering just as loudly and happily as everyone else, by all accounts, right up until the instant he began firing those five, quick shots from his handgun. Presidential candidate and then-Governor of Alabama, George C. Wallace, in photos of both of them and the crowd at that campaign stop outside the J.C. Penny’s in Laurel, Maryland on May 15, 1972, appears not to see his impending brush with death. He is shown waving and smiling just as Bremer is waving and clapping and smiling, right up until the instant that the shooting began.

There is no film footage documenting the incident, only still pictures, now antique. They show the candidate in a kind of before and after pose, with him in the “after” prone and bloodied, surrounded by staff and frantic onlookers, on the tarmac. He was hit several times, most of the bullets passing entirely through his body. Unfortunately, though, it is known that at least one tumbled through him, first striking and then spending its remaining kinetic energy amid the spindled fibers and filaments of his spinal cord, having essentially shred all of the tissues in its path up to that point.

George C. Wallace was lucky to be alive on that day in Maryland. His campaign for the presidency was over and, indeed, it was to be the last day that he would ever again stand erect and unassisted. He would spend the rest of his life seated, watching the world from a different point of view.

* * * * * * * *

I was an expert ignorer. I had spent years carefully cultivating my talent for screening out distraction, walling off tangential noise, motion, or other, superfluous activity around me. I could hide from nearly anything. There were countless situations in which I had remained aloof while all kinds of whoops and hollers and happy commotions in the spaces around my desk had carried on and on. Nearly every week was dotted with the clingy, sickly sweet birthday parties, the oohs and ahs of the insufferable baby showers, or the sorry atonal attempts at one or another anniversary or send-off songs.

In the condominium complex too, as the weekends filled from nearly sunrise to dusk with the echoes and jubilant shrieks of the little sub-urban hellions running in games of hide-and-seek or frozen-tag or Red-Rover-Red-Rover, sting-ray biking or simply jostling around on the concreted-over pathways of the complex, I remained blissfully zoned out. I never spent more time or energy or aggravation on these interlopers on my quiet psyche than it took to close my blinds or to bury my head more deeply into the worries of my report or my memo or the pixilated green texts of my see-ar-TEE, or to increase the volume of Staci with an “i”. So it was grandly ironic to me that there, on the side of the road where I had crashed, I felt so lost, so awash in the same kind of static I had, in the past, so often effortlessly ignored.

Focus. I needed focus. I needed a plan.

I could hear the sound of an occasional car or truck passing by on the road above me. The simplest thing to do was to climb up, out of the ditch and flag down some assistance. Surely someone would immediately grasp the circumstances of my situation and help. Unfortunately, the ditch sidewall that stood between me and the surface of the road was steeply sloped and perhaps 12 or 15 feet high when measured from the lowest point of the depression in which my car and I rested and bled. No grass or weeds grew on its hips, their having been blanketed over by the state with the pushed-aside salts and cinder used to provide motorists with traction during the winter. Furthermore, when surveying as best I could, given my physical condition, it appeared that the topography of the trench continued in similar fashion parallel to the roadside in both directions.

Assessing the particulars of my situation in this way also led me to another discovery. When I turned to look up and down the length of the ditch, something sharp stuck at me in my side. I had never felt any one of my ribs as something separate from, or individually distinguishable within, my body. I had always simply breathed, and my ribs all moved, as far as I could ever tell, in simple, silent concert to accommodate the respiratory process. Now, however, it was clear to me that at least one of those anonymous staves had indeed separated itself from the others. I noticed an insidious but undeniably progressive increase in the difficulty with which I was breathing, and a faint, raspy gurgle began down deep in my throat and accompanied my grunts and groans as I moved.

Neither could I hope to get help by staying put and yelling or waving. There was a strong likelihood that in those passing vehicles above, having been sealed against the summer’s atmosphere, the drivers and passengers were now effectively soundproofed. Exacerbating this from a visual perspective was the precarious angle that anyone up there would have had to assume in order to catch sight of me and the undercarriage of my car over the dead wall formed by the birm at the side of the road along the lip of the ditch.

Seeing and feeling these things led me to the conclusion that getting out of my current situation was not likely to happen simply by retracing my steps.

So. I was alone at last. Really. Alone. The brunt of some cruel joke, waked from a dreamless dark, caked with blood and greasy gristle there, in a ditch below an unnamed, safe little Maryland intrastate road, I sat amidst all I had ever really wanted.

I began to wait, I guess, either to be rescued or at some point to die.

This was all very weird, I decided, even for a day that I had had my haircut.

* * * * * * * *

In the months before he died in his sleep in 1998, George Wallace called or visited all of the people that he could imagine he might have insulted or affronted or in some way directly harmed during his vitriolic campaigns for the advancement of segregation and the adoption of policies advocating the separation of all humans based on the color of their skins or their country or region of origin. He visited or called or wrote to everyone he could think of, and he apologized. I do not know if it was come upon him suddenly or if he himself came, over time and with the benefit of extra time he was given to sit and contemplate it, to regret. But his remorse is well documented. He was abject. He was contrite.

What is interesting about this to me is that, in interviews he granted during this latter phase of his life, he stated that he felt that, of all the sins he had committed during his public life, those base crimes related to his public proponence of prejudice did not concern him most. Those were bad, yes. What was worse, though, what was most egregious, what he said bothered him far more as his day of reckoning approached, was the fact that he had actually consciously adopted those controversial politics all those years before. It bothered him that he had intentionally shifted, really, from what had been the decidedly idealist tenets of his younger days as a result only of having been defeated by one John Patterson in a state’s race for governor in 1958.

It was during that campaign that Mr. Patterson, who was an icon of the Alabama political scene during the 40’s and 50’s, had set about building a political platform that rested squarely on a number of decidedly and openly segregationist planks. He even went so far as to seek and publicly welcome the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan.

In what became with the perspective of time a highly queer juxtaposition, Mr. Patterson’s opponent, a callow young man named Wallace, actually garnered the approval of the state’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples. A man of principle, a man of abiding faith and morality, the young George believed that the people he sought to govern were righteous, that they would see the inherent immorality of the philosophies of his opponent, and that they would vote for the clear voice of reason and tolerance and social progress. He was the harbinger of a new South. He preached a new message. He sought to lead his people out of the drudgeries of baseless hate and blind ignorance.

He would later say, “As a direct result of that,” by which he meant that as a direct result of his having been “out-niggered,” as he put it, by Mr. Patterson, in the run-off following the general election, he lost the governorship by a margin of over sixty thousand votes. This was a sizable victory for elections in the state of Alabama, a true mandate. The people had made it clear that their tolerance was to be extended only to those who stood firmly for the propagation of a highly intolerant representative government. George C. Wallace, the ingenue, the upright and moral, was devastated by their edict. He nearly quit politics, permanently and altogether.

What Wallace did not have at the time when he occupied the lonely dungeons of his defeat was, of course, perspective. Life tends to withhold its grant of practicable perspective in real-time, after all, and what George C. lacked in 1958 was a lesson in true devastation. He needed to live with the full breadth and depth to which sorrow could reach.

But back in 1958, there was no way he could know this, no way he could know how cruel Life’s teaching can be, and so he did not quit then. For him it was simple; it was a time when discretion was definitely the better part of valor. He had further to go and, after a brief respite from the public eye, he came to know it. Moreover, after that same respite, he knew exactly what course he had to take in order to gain his objective, and so was begun his far more infamous public life and rise to power in the South, and his ascent to notoriety on the American political scene at large. Thus changed and renewed, he was later easily elected to Governor of the state of Alabama and went on to achieve a national prominence that culminated in his bid for the presidency of the United States in 1978.

When he got around to apologizing to all the wronged then, years after that, his beseeching of forbearance was for more than having betrayed his fellow man. He was careful and strident, whenever given the opportunity to point it out, that it was not that he really wanted or expected to make a peace for himself in those, his closing days; amends were not his target. Rather, and from his redoubtable icon pulpit lowered to accommodate his wheelchair, he wanted people to know which, of the two philosophical escutcheons that bore his name, he himself felt was the greater blot. He sought redemption not in forgiveness but in whatever influence he could yet muster that might get people who once listened to his litany of hatred to now think carefully about what he had done, as he had done; and it was important, given this inspection, that they decide for themselves, this once, what had been the greater wrong.

* * * * * * * *

Thunder again. Louder. Closer. The breeze was becoming stronger, more laden with the promise of the day’s rain. If I stayed put, I was going to get wet; if I was going to get wet, I was going to get cold; and if I got cold, the chances were good that I would go deeper into shock and most probably die long before anyone found me.

I do not remember having a clear aversion to death. Neither, however, do I recall having a particular affinity for life. Still, certain things were proper; certain practices were associated with ethical, clean living. Death was a way out, but death by choice was a cheat, a shortcut without honor. I was independent, yes, but I was not afraid, not suicidal. I may not have had any specific plans for the future, but I was sure that such an early exit was set aside for people who were not happy; such a threshold was reserved for the crossing solely by those who were less smug, by far, than I. I had a condominium; I had a sleeper sofa.

I was not through yet, and if I stayed put there, in the ditch, that’s what I was choosing, really: to be through.

I was not prepared to die just because I had been stung by a bee.

So I turned on my good leg to scan the opposite side of the ditch. The gurgling sound in my lungs was growing more persistent. The pain in my leg and in my head and in my ribs was abating, but not, I surmised, because things inside me were okay. Rather, I had the definite feeling that the opposite was true, that each of these parts of my body was probably not at all okay, and that a natural defense mechanism that was part of human physiology had kicked in to foster and facilitate my presumed flight to succor.

The slope of the opposite side of the ditch was not so severe as the roadside, and its crest was markedly lower. Weeds and vines reached down from the field along its brim in search of the standing water that occasionally collected in its bottom. I began to stagger first across the concave floor of the ditch and then, using the vines and stronger weeds I could manage to grasp as makeshift ropes, worked my way slowly, haltingly up the embankment.

I flashed on a comical mental picture of my assailant, crawling out from beneath the wreckage and zigzagging up, into the hazy sunlight and off home with a great, heaving “WHEW!”

At the crest of the bank, I bowed my head like a battered fighter, leaned down on the wreckage of my knees and haunches and tried to gather my senses.

What next?

* * * * * * * *

Nearby, Jeffrey did not think about what was next. He did not think about his legs being so short and unable to follow close behind his big sister Chloe and realize that this was only a temporary state of affairs. He only knew about what was happening to him here and now. He only knew that she had already nearly disappeared from his sight on the way to the car, and that he was just starting across the driveway in front of the store, and that she seemed very far away from him in many, many ways, and even seemed to be getting farther away every second.

Big sisters can be cruel sometimes and can want to teach their little brothers lessons in very painful ways, but Jeffrey did not know that this too is usually not a permanent thing.

Being five years old, Jeffrey also did not think about things that were very far in the past, and he usually had trouble connecting things that happened right now to things that were sure to happen subsequently. This uncertainty, this delay in cognitive ability was not unusual for a five-year-old either, but Jeffrey did not know this.

He did remember what had just happened in the store, but that was about it. He remembered that he and Chloe had been waiting in line in the store, and that she had glared at him and yelled, “No!”, trying to sound, he guessed, a lot like Mom when he whined and begged and tugged on the hem of her shorts asking for the Tic-Tacs in the rack of candy by the checkstand. Jeffrey did not yet know anything about money or about big sisters’ schedules and Moms’ impositions on those schedules. Jeffrey had only known that those Tic-Tacs looked good, and that he had wanted them, and that Chloe had gotten mad and yelled loudly, “No!”, and though her yelling had not exactly scared him like when Dad or Mom yelled, it did make him feel mad and made his throat feel funny and tight, and that made him want to cry, and that made him whine even more and for even longer.

Jeffrey did not think about the future, except for that part of it that he thought he could see would take place if his sister got herself out of his sight there in the parking lot outside the store. The cars all looked alike to him, at his eye level. He did not know the difference between a Chevy and a BMW. He usually only remembered things from a few minutes ago, and he was beginning to wonder if he remembered the color of the car that had brought him here.

And Jeffrey did not know how to tie his shoes yet.

* * * * * * * *

And then it happened. The thing happened.

And this was every bit as startling as being stung. While I was bent over there, at the top of the ditch, trying hard not to die, a very faint sound that did not fit with everything else around me worked its way into my consciousness. It was distant, barely audible above the billowing breeze and the dying car and the pounding of the blood in my head, yet I swore I could make out the sound of a—what was it? A splash? A yell?

How? How could I notice something, anything there, barely alive. I cannot say for certain. Perhaps it was that I had not always lived in a condominium outside Laurel, Maryland. I had not always worked for a government. I had not always had an imitation leather sleeper sofa, or a practical car, or a padded cell in which to spend my days.

I had once lived in a house that did not physically abut another, with a mother and a father and sisters and a brother and a dog. I had a full-fledged bed there, with a quilt that an old, spinster aunt had made and festooned with bits of yarn and brick-a-brack that told stories to my mother and my grandmother and my other visiting aunts and uncles. We had a deep and soft couch. It had a cigarette burn in the varnish on the arm on one side that was there when we got it. Mom had the same quilt-making aunt make a doily that she used to cover it up whenever she knew we were going to have company other than family over.

There had been a time, quite a while before the time that I moved to live outside Laurel, Maryland, when I got around on a sting-ray bicycle; it had hi-rise handlebars and a seat that was shaped like a flattened version of the plastic tub-dishes they used to make banana splits in at the Dairy Freeze. I lived in a neighborhood then, not a tract. The town comprised dozens of these unofficial boroughs, each with borders so distinct that they may as well have been delineated by concrete ramparts and flag-topped rooks’ perches. Occasionally I played baseball with some of the guys in my neighborhood. We used trashcan lids or crushed soda cans as bases and contested the games in the side yard of the house where Matty Spitaro lived with his family. We drew home plate out in the dust with the narrow end of Brian Botagglio’s Louisville Slugger baseball bat because, as anyone who has played in any side yard anywhere knows, home has to stay put.

All of Matty Spitaro’s older brothers had played baseball in that same side yard before us, when they were our age, and so the base paths were permanently worn into the grass there, but Matty Spitaro’s dad, Mr. Martin Spitaro, didn’t care.

This was my back story. This was why I heard the sound there, at the top of the ditch where I was supposed to be dying. This was how my body pushed aside all of its work to suppress the pain and damage of the accident to hone in on the faint echo. It was an echo of a former time, an echo of a place in me where I lived before I was alone. It was the lost tune of the song that awakened me in my bed in our little house next to the Spitaros’ every morning, full of excitement at the prospect of the day, ready to pick new teams, ready to run and jump in the sun or the rain or the snow that settled onto the streets and empty lots and side yards of all of the world I knew.

It was a trigger. It may have been the simple playing out of a standard rite of pre-passage. I cannot say. I had never crashed my car before. I had never bled so much, and it had been many, many years since I had thought of Mr. Martin Spitaro, or of playing baseball, or of pathways worn into the grass by generations of flying feet. It was the first time that I realized that someone had consciously decided to allow his children and their friends to ruin his lawn.

I held my breath. I brought my powers of attenuation to bear against the pounding pain in my head. Yes, there it was again. A perfectly formed cannonball splash was followed by the laughing applause of an at-once appreciative and derisive gallery. At first, I wavered between assigning the faint noise to some aspect of my passing into a state of pre-mortem Delrina and the possibility of finding help by tracking down its source. I began sweating again. I focused and squinted all my senses into a fine, searching laser beam cast out beyond the limits of my sight in order to discern the bearing to the sound from my position. Then, I was able to find it again, there, in among the sounds of bugs and my car and the pounding of what blood remained available to me. Yes. There. I heard them.

And suddenly, the sweat and tears and blood that filled my eyes and splayed out onto my shirt under that Maryland sun became the much younger and inconsequential sweat that poured out from under my ball cap, playing right field, waiting, way out by the low row of hedges and rhubarb between Matty’s side yard and the Pasguccis’. The frayed double-knit polyester around the tear in my corporate-colored slacks became the sky-blue, downy frays of the shorts my mother made for me every summer from last fall’s pair of Sears Toughskins play pants. Mom was bound to yell at me for getting my school shoes so dirty. What had me vexed was why I had put ‘em on at all.

Summers are for bare-footin’ it.

I have no explanation for what happened to me next.

There it was again, coming to me in tiny waves, ripples, miniscule perturbations in the pool of insectoid and low, mechanical white noise, washing faintly in and out; in, then out to the borders of my awareness, as if I were standing ankle deep in the tepid water at the shore of a still pond, watching more than feeling the surface moving up and down over just the very tops of my feet, swishing the fine wisps of hair there back and forth, back and forth as my toes sank into the warm muddy bottom. And those tiny feelings were the only indication of life moving beneath the mirror surface somewhere out in the deep where I could not see. Here, by the side of the road, with my ass still flecked with the gasoline-drenched ash dirt from the bottom of the ditch, and with my blood oozing out and scabbing over, and with the poison of the angry little gnat that had stopped me still coursing through my veins, I heard them. I heard them playing in the wood, away across the thin stretch of sunburning buckwheat and thistle. I heard them.

There was a part of me that recommended I stay put, of course. I could very nearly see the road from where I stood. I had a relatively good chance of flagging someone down now. Sure, there was the sound out there, in the woods, but I had no idea how far away it was. There was a part of me, of course, that sought to ignore it, to do the practical thing, to do the adult thing. There was a part of me that said, “Stay where you are. Help will come to you. It is only a matter of time.”

And I would have listened to that part of me. I would, I’m sure, have been rescued by someone, sometime. I would have been able to get some passing motorist to help me. Someone was bound to come along eventually.

But it beckoned. Above the pain, outside of me and my life there, outside of Laurel, Maryland, it called.

Perhaps it was the memory of that tattered-but-covered-up prior life that conjured the feelings that trickled into me there, stooped in the belly-high weeds and thistle thicket at the edge of the woods. Whenever I smell new-mown hay now, or when I catch the scent of the grasses that, late on into the summer, march in attack on the beach from its leeward side, I remember those things and remember feeling those things—for the first time in a long, long time—way back then.

And harmonics of notes once familiar and dear were now full-plucked on strings that, in me, had long since been silenced by the accumulation of more mature concerns. Years’ worth of sounds and movement and youth, sounds that had been absorbed by my cubicle walls, had slipped down in between the cushions of my cheap furniture, had been jacked off into the toilet—they insinuated themselves like drops of paint dribbled onto a whirling spindled card in a child’s art toy; colors were driven outward to my edges to meld and become new colors themselves.

Then I remember vividly experiencing a sense of needing to get something over with, of needing to get something seen to that needed seeing, desperately. Did I need to leave? What was I expecting to find? Did I think that I stood a better chance of getting help where I was headed? I did not know, really. I cared even less. It was hot. It was late. I had already stopped anyway. I only knew that it was right and proper to leave, to get myself gone from where I was.

And so leave I did; somewhere along the highway in the hot hills outside of the town known at all only because a Southern rabble-rouser’s blood had once been spilt there in a parking lot outside an anonymous department store, I was on my way. I had been on my way to a particular place, and now, like several who had come before me there, though I did not yet know it, I was on my way to someplace else. I gathered myself up as best I could and began.

At the border of the state land and the forest, a hideable hole had been cut or maybe worked into the wire fencing used to protect the highway from the wild or vice-versa. Beyond this doorway was the head of a simple, dirt path. It could have once been a deer or fisher run, but now its width in through the ferns, oak and ash saplings and taller trees was too wide and packed smooth, too obvious to the naked eye for the tastes or comfort of any wild thing but a boy or a girl. Its surface was cool to the touch, even in the muggy heat of the day, made so by the passage of countless sneakered and bared feet over generations of summer afternoons. This I knew because I had to crouch low and stumble on my serviceable knee to make it in to the trees.

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January 30, 2003
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